H.G. Wells's original The Invisible Man (1897) suggests that rather than something as powerful as invisibility being used for the betterment of mankind, it would instead be used to fulfil private desires, ultimately leading to the moral corruption of otherwise good men. In probably the best cinematic adaptation, Hollow Man (2000), this is taken much further, with the suggestion that the results of invisibility would be nothing less than sexual violence, evil, and madness. However, despite the centrality of this theme in the core story, reframing the template as a tale of domestic abuse and PTSD, as happens in this latest adaptation, which focuses not on the male scientist but on a female victim of his, is a fascinating idea, creating the potential for some timely #MeToo social commentary, particularly as it relates to issues of not believing women who accuse powerful men of gaslighting. But potential only gets you so far, and what could have been a really insightful film eventually proves itself relatively incapable of using issues of domestic abuse as anything other than plot points to get from one predictable scare to the next.
The film begins as Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is putting into motion a plan to leave her domineering and abusive boyfriend, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy pioneer in optics. Having drugged him, she leaves their high-tech home in the middle of the night and is picked up nearby by her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer), who takes her to stay with their childhood friend, James Lanier (Aldis Hodge), a policeman living with his daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). Although assured that Adrian can't find her, Cecilia is clearly suffering from agoraphobia and paranoia. That is until Adrian commits suicide. Contacted by his brother Tom (Michael Dorman) who's handling his estate, Cecilia learns that Adrian has left her $5 million. However, despite her best efforts to move on, she just can't shake the feeling that Adrian is still around, watching her, sometimes even in the same room as her. And the surer she becomes that he's not dead, the more everyone else becomes worried about her mental well-being.
Written and directed by Leigh Whannell, this latest adaptation of Wells's original is not actually about the invisible man. Indeed, short of a background shot of him lying in bed, a shot showing only his torso as he runs through a forest, and a close-up of his hand, actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen doesn't even appear on screen prior to his apparent suicide. Adrian is not only the invisible man of the plot, so too is his character ideologically invisible. Which makes its own statement, and it's a statement worth making - men like him don't need to be present to continue to cause harm. In this sense, at least initially, the film is more concerned with the fear Adrian has instilled in Cecilia; in the early stages, Cecilia's main enemy isn't Adrian so much her inability to move on from him. Along the same lines, the film looks at issues of how women who accuse powerful men of gaslighting are often ignored or openly disbelieved.
Aesthetically, the film looks terrific, particularly Stefan Duscio's cinematography, into which is built Cecilia's paranoia. For example, countless scenes involve the camera panning away from her, moving across the room, showing us nothing at all, and then panning back. Ordinarily, this would be textbook unmotivated camera movement, but here it conveys how Cecelia fears there may be something in the corner to which we panned. And now, thanks to that camera pan, so do we. There are also many shots which in another film would be awful framing; isolating Cecilia in the frame and filling up so much of the screen's real-estate with empty negative space. Except, again, in this film, such negative space has an ominousness not applicable to regular thrillers. In this way, Whannell can instil fear and dread simply by pointing the camera at an empty room without the need for any FX, VFX, makeup, elaborate props etc (which no doubt played a significant role in keeping the budget down to a minuscule $7 million). And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Moss's performance, which is excellent, especially given that so much of it is her on her own reacting to nothing whatsoever, having to communicate confusion, fear, anger etc through little more than her expression.
Before talking about why I didn't like the film, however, I want to reiterate that I honestly can't say how much I admire the idea to reconstitute the genre template as a story about domestic violence. And it's an especially timely reconstitution, coming as it does in the era of #MeToo, when so many powerful men, once considered invisible in everything but name, able to perpetrate their crimes with impunity, have been revealed as the monsters they are. So I have no problem with the ideological paradigm shift. My problem is with the execution.
For one thing, we know from the get-go that Cecilia isn't imagining things, that Adrian faked his suicide and is now stalking her whilst invisible. This isn't a twist, and the film makes no attempt to hide it. Granted, this is kind of unavoidable given how well-known the property is, but had the film allowed for even a little bit of ambiguity, it could have done wonders for emotional complexity, turning a story about invisibility into a story possibly about mental collapse. This would have effectively placed the audience in the same position as the other characters, doubting Cecilia's state of mind, which would, in turn, have enhanced the potency of the socio-political allegory. Another thing that bothered me is that in a film so focused on surveillance and privacy, there are several scenes where if there is even one functioning CCTV camera, the movie ends. A pivotal scene in a restaurant is an especially egregious example of this - one grainy image from a camera, and Cecilia can prove she's not going nuts and the whole plot unravels.
However, my biggest problem is that what starts as a fascinating study of the lasting ramifications of domestic violence ultimately descends into genre stupidity, with a ridiculously over-the-top final act that says nothing of interest about anything. True, Hollow Man has a pretty over-the-top final act too, but Hollow Man never saw itself as anything other than a schlocky genre affair, whereas The Invisible Man clearly does. The fact that Whannell ultimately undermines himself in this way, deploying such important themes merely to get him to the gory dénouement, is especially frustrating insofar as he genuinely did originally seem to have some interesting things to say. Tied to this is that Adrian is introduced as such an abhorrent character from the start, void of nuance or subtlety. Domestic abusers aren't monotone evil-doers, oftentimes, they're very charming on the surface, and any film claiming to be a serious examination of this topic would make room to address this.
Although The Invisible Man was very well reviewed and a huge box-office hit, it left me disappointed and frustrated. Initially positioning itself as an insightful allegory for the difficulty victims of domestic abuse have in moving on with their lives even after the abuser is gone, it eventually privileges genre beats and cheap thrills over emotional complexity. Which is a huge shame and a massively missed opportunity.